For the next few months, the Neill-Cochran House Museum will host If These Walls Could Talk, a collaborative art piece from actor Jennifer Cumberbatch and sculptor Ginger Geyer. It’s an ambitious undertaking, featuring dozens of Geyer’s porcelain works, several performances by Cumberbatch, filmed pieces, discussions and more.
Geyer says she’s fitting her sculptures in all around the house. There are 78 pieces on display, “tucked into the bedrooms, into the parlors, and actually hidden in plain sight,” Geyer says. “The visitor’s going to be a little fooled by trying to find them, because they are of the tradition of trompe l’oeil, or ‘fool the eye.’ You might call it a scavenger hunt or an Easter egg hunt.”
Cumberbatch’s performances, which begin on Feb. 6 and continue through May 1, are all inspired by Geyer’s sculptures.
“That’s pretty much how all the performances have originated in the show,” Cumberbatch says. “Just kind of meditating on one of Ginger’s pieces and marrying it to the history of the house.”
One of the driving forces behind the exhibit is a desire to tell a more complete history of Austin and the house itself.
“Historically, if you come to the Neill-Cochran House, you’re going to hear the story about General Custer, you’re going to hear the story about the Cochrans and the Neills, and the provisional governor, etcetera,” Cumberbatch says. “And with this exhibit, you’re going to hear [about] and honor the people who actually built the house, along with the five slaves that were sold to finance the construction of the house.
“The Neill-Cochran House embraced this fully,” Cumberbatch adds. “They’ve been wanting for a number of years to kind of explore the stories out of the 'dependency,' or the slave dwelling. But I think they were a little uncomfortable trying to tell those stories from their perspective. And so the [executive director of the museum], Rowena Dasch, was ecstatic… that we were going to not only explore what’s written as history, but [also] interject our experience, our artistic vantage point, and add to the story. It’s not a replacement of the stories that are normally told – it’s a more inclusive narrative.”
Geyer and Cumberbatch make it clear that while they’re exploring history, they’re doing so through an artistic eye and with some artistic license.
“I think that’s a huge part of the power of this exhibit,” Cumberbatch says. “That we’re using art – both visual art and performance art – to be a gentle provocateur. To instigate conversation and get people to think a little bit deeper than the surface level.”